The sound of the cimbalom is synonymous with Hungary. Few cities connect with the folk music of their past so readily as Budapest. The influence of folk music on contemporary composers is a strand explored in this year’s CAFe Budapest, a colourful festival of classical and pop music events, jazz and world music, opera, theatre and contemporary circus, along with evenings of literature and visual art exhibits.

Söndörgő © CAFe Budapest
© CAFe Budapest
It is Hungary’s foremost festival of contemporary culture, with 110 events which take place across 40 venues around the city. CAFe Budapest’s classical programme draws its inspiration from the great Hungarian composer, Bela Bartók.

The Kelemen Quartet, founded in Budapest in 2010, is a terrific ensemble that has swiftly gained an international reputation. Reviewing the quartet in New Zealand, our critic concluded that Kodály’s music “runs deep in these players' veins”, while in Bartók they “could almost have been a single instrument”. Both Kodály and Bartók were key in collecting and preserving Hungarian folk music, which influenced their own compositions. The Kelemens bridge Bartók to contemporary folk music from the Balkans, joining forces with the Söndörgő band.

Bartók’s folk influences are explored further in an exciting cross-genre evening on 5 October. Novelist and poet Gyula Illyés wrote to promote awareness of the oppressed peasant classes in Hungary. Among his poems is Bartòk, which explores questions of dissonance and harmony. It opens thus:

“Harsh discord?” – Yes! They think it thus

which brings us solace!

Yes! Let the violin strings,

let singing throats

learn curse-clatter of splintering glass

crashing to the ground

the screen of rasp

wedged in the teeth

of buzzing saw; – let there be no peace, no gaiety

in gilded, lofty far

and delicate, closed-off concert halls,

until in woe-darkened hearts!

Poetry, music and dance combine when the Hungarian National Dance Ensemble and Dohnányi Orchestra Budafok present Illyés's poem with Bartók’s Allegro barbaro and folk-inspired compositions by Lutosławski and László Dubrovay.

Bartók continues to inspire new generations of composers. The New Hungarian Musical Forum’s Composer Competition runs again this festival, with a focus this year on Bela Bartók, asking for composers to submit entries inspired by his art of personality.

The cimbalom in 20th century and contemporary music is explored by Miklós Lukács and the THReNSeMBle. Stravinsky’s 1918 Ragtime was one of the first “classical” scores to include cimbalom. Lukács works within the contemporary music and jazz scene, including collaborating with György Kurtág and Péter Eötvös, whose music is included in a tantalising programme.

The Geneamus Ensemble, founded in Vienna in 2014, combines past with present in an unusual way, performing on traditional instruments using the latest electroacoustic technologies. The ensemble is committed to new music and organises contests for composers. Led by Róbert Mandel, the ensemble performs at Bálna Budapest on 10 October.

Other highlights of CAFe Budapest’s classical season include Componensemble’s juxtaposition of Schoenberg’s radical Pierrot Lunaire with four world première performances. Shostakovich’s satirical opera The Nose is given at Müpa Palace of Arts, in a co-production with Neue Oper Wien. A barber finds a nose in his roll one morning at breakfast. Its owner desperately seeks it, but the nose is reluctant to be reunited with him. Shostakovich’s music is full of wit and parody, as seen here at a recent production at The Met, which gives a new definition to “a running nose”!

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turns 80 this month and his music features in three programmes by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. The renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir performs in the first concert, which includes Adam’s Lament, a moving 2009 work for chorus and string orchestra, setting the words of Silouan the Athonite. It deals with the fall of Adam who, Pärt maintains, “represents humankind in its entirety and each individual person alike.”

The Tallinn Chamber Orchestra’s other concerts contain such popular Pärt works as Spiegel im Spiegel, Fratres and Für Alina.  

Pärt jostles with Bartók’s in a programme at the Budapest Music Center, linking Pärt’s choral music – which draws heavily on Gregorian chants and polyphony – to Bartók’s folk rhythms.

The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was Pärt’s tribute to the Suffolk composer. A short canon for string orchestra and bell, it is a poignant work. Tibor Bogányi and the Pannon Orchestra programme it with Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and Sibelius’ Kullervo, an epic work for orchestra, soloists and chorus which draws on episodes from the Finnish Kalevala… bringing us back to folk roots once more.

There are plenty more music events to explore at CAFe Budapest this October. Click here for full listings.


Article sponsored by the Hungarian Tourist Board.